The Portland Timbers didn’t play any soccer this weekend for the first time in what feels like forever. Thankfully, it’s only for this week as they rest up in preparation for their first round matchup against FC Dallas next Sunday. That’s right: One week from now, even though at various points it felt like it was unlikely we would even get here, the Timbers will be playing playoff soccer.
It’s something that was already touched on after the final match against LAFC, but it’s worth repeating that it’s mightily impressive that the team has accomplished so much in 2020. They took home the first piece of hardware with the MLS is Back Tournament victory and followed that up with a third-place finish in the Western Conference despite suffering catastrophic injuries to players like Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda. Despite it all, Portland’s form is fine heading into the FC Dallas match, and head coach Giovanni Savarese is more than satisfied with the results.
“When I go back and analyze this whole year, it’s incredible how good the guys have been in the way they have played,” Savarese said. “In the way that they play united in whoever steps on the field, they will do their job and work very hard. And especially, we have been through so much adversity in so many ways and the team keeps on it, keeps on moving forward, keeps believing.”
All things considered, it’s been an okay 2020 for Portland. The season isn’t over, but for a little while longer, Portland will get to enjoy the international break, although it doesn’t benefit them entirely. Felipe Mora and Andy Polo were called up for international duty, playing for their respective national teams in 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. They will both miss the FC Dallas match, leaving Portland that much thinner for the opening round. Still, Savarese sees the break as a bonus in such a condensed year.
“It’s definitely a good thing for us to have the chance to regroup, to have this time to prepare,” Savarese said. “So this week is about making sure that we’re getting healthy, that we work individually with the guys to give them what they need ... it is more about thinking and getting everyone in a good place.”
Getting guys healthy should be a top priority. Portland is down two strikers now with Mora out for the match and Niezgoda injured. The good news is that Jeremy Ebobisse — who had missed the final five matches of the season due to a concussion — is looking good. Savarese said on Thursday that Ebobisse is on track to play next Sunday.
“Jebo is doing very well,” Savarese said. “And we believe that he should be able to be in good form to participate in our first match of the playoffs. We feel very positive about his progress.”
That’s great news going into a match where the opponent isn’t someone you’re entirely familiar with. They haven’t played FC Dallas at all this year, with Dallas missing the tournament this summer and the regular season matchups being more regional. It’s a simple equation that applies to most team sports: The more you play a team, the more you learn about how you matchup against them.
That’s not to say that Dallas is a total mystery for Portland. Savarese and crew watch almost all the MLS games throughout the year, so they aren’t going into this match blind. He admitted that they’re actually excited about getting the chance to play a different team for the first time in months. Only two things have changed: How they prepare, and how much time they have to do so.
“It’s about us scouting them more ... to share that knowledge that we have with the players,” Savarese said. “We respect everything in MLS, and as I said, we work a lot more than we talk. So we prepare very strong for this match and we feel proud that we’re going to play at home ... And we know it’s going to be tough, but we prepare for this challenge and looking forward to it.”
It hasn’t always been a perfect year for Portland. They’ve stumbled occasionally, allowing goals at inopportune times and losing players when they need them the most. But despite it all, they’ve found success in a year where success hasn’t been easy to come by. Now they just have to keep it going.